Donda Academy basketball team helped by Mamba Academy after Kanye West backlash

An elite training facility best known for being Kobe Bryant’s target on the night of the fateful 2019 helicopter crash that killed him, his daughter Gianna and seven others is currently a safe haven for a dismayed collection of top high school basketball players.

The athletic academy — known as Mamba Academy before his death in Bryant’s ownership — in Thousand Oaks serves as the classroom, weight room and basketball court for Donda Academy, a preparatory school whose future is in jeopardy due to recent anti-Semitic tirades of its owner, Kanye West.

Donda players have their share of support. A game against Atlanta’s The Skill Factory at Morehouse College on Nov. 6 is still ongoing, helped by Boston Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown, who has proved an outspoken advocate for players on Twitter, even after breaking off a relationship with West’s marketing agency Donda Sports Has.

The team met for a Zoom call Sunday with Brown, Celtics teammate Blake Griffin and Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who has been making headlines himself lately after tweeting and then deleting a post that contained an anti-Semitic one movie linked.

“[The NBA players] just told us they would have our backs and help us through the process,” senior guard AJ Johnson said.

When Donda Academy was founded a year ago, it brought together top talent from across the country. The school enticed players with an opportunity to build their brand in the NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) era under West’s massive image while developing their collegiate and pro potential, according to the father of a player who requested anonymity because he worried about his son would retaliate.

Now, however, players are being forced to reckon with the potential impact on their image – and the disappearance of potential opportunities – as they remain under West’s brand.

“At the end of the day, with the Donda Dove on our chest, we’re basically playing for Kanye,” Johnson said. “It’s his school. So having our names attached to him could lead to a few things: NILs wouldn’t want to do business with us or people wouldn’t want to sign us or something.”

At least four national tournaments dropped Donda Academy last week amid rumors the school was closing. After the fallout, two players switched – one, according to a family member, was struggling to find a new home.

For those who remained, Monday offered a glimpse of a typical day – even if the circumstances swirling around them were far from typical and the potential for a mass exodus still looms.

They arrived at the athletic academy before 10 a.m., spent an hour in the weight room doing weightlifting and flexibility exercises, throwing a medicine ball off the wall while lip-synching and nodding their heads at Lil Baby. Then they went upstairs to the classroom for about two hours of online study sessions. Next came lunch, then practice took place in one of the four courts on the first floor.

“We don’t know if just staying is a good choice [at Donda], or is it just good to find another place to go,” said Johnson, perhaps the best player on the list not to commit to college. “But right now we’re all just focused on getting better and now we’re blocking out all that noise until we figure out what we want to do.”

Johnson said he understands the backlash to West’s hate speech, but still expressed frustration at tournaments where ties were severed.

The Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Florida, the John Wall Holiday Invitational in Raleigh, NC, and the Play-by-Play Classic in Minneapolis dropped or declined Donda, an invitation to offer .

“I feel like it just has nothing to do with us. Like, we’re just gonna play basketball. We don’t support what he’s saying,” Johnson said.

A timeline beyond November 6 is uncertain. The team could host games at the sports academy, although officials said the facility fills up weeks in advance with everything from volleyball tournaments to fencing competitions to youth basketball tournaments.

In fact, West showed up at the athletic academy on Friday night to watch his daughter play basketball. The parking lots and foyer were soon unexpectedly packed with fans, and Sports Academy decided to step up security for events with West or Donda Academy over the weekend.

“We do not allow media access for Donda players,” said Taylor Ramsey, Sports Academy performance director. “The comfort and well-being of players is our top priority, providing them with a place to learn, train and relax.”

Donda players come from all over the US and live in apartments. Most have never set foot on Donda Academy’s small campus, located in an industrial complex in Chatsworth for students who aren’t basketball players. The teams are largely a separate entity – players and their parents did not receive the email sent to families last week announcing the closure of Donda Academy, the anonymous father said.

The school is not accredited, and while the team is not sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation, it is one of many similar elite teams that compete in high-level tournaments and showcases to give players exposure to college recruiters.

Two players, JJ Taylor and Chuck Bailey, announced their departures last week. Taylor was once a top 10 prospect in the country, but his ranking has slipped. Bailey, meanwhile, lost a handful of 15 Division I offers after joining Donda for his junior season.

Guards Robert Dillingham, a consensus top 10 player in the country, and Johnson, a consensus top 20 player, are holding on for now, though Johnson said they are considering leaving.

“I’m not going to say we’re staying 100%,” he said. “But it’s not 100% that we’re going either. We’re just trying to see how things are going to be and how things are going so we can make our decision.

In the meantime, the sports academy will continue to serve as a sanctuary and home away from home. Players have a well-equipped lounge with sports drinks and food, computers and televisions, sofas and chairs. The smoothie bar is top notch.

The vision Kobe Bryant had of a world-class training and performance facility when he took ownership in 2018 and branded it the Mamba Academy has not died in the eyes of the Sports Academy’s current staff. It is fulfilling to offer stability and comfort to Donda players during an uncertain time that is beyond their control.

“It’s unfortunate to see their situation, even if they don’t express a lot of frustration,” Ramsey said. “They come in and do their job. We always say if one door is closed, 10 more will open.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-10-31/donda-academy-kanye-west-basketball Donda Academy basketball team helped by Mamba Academy after Kanye West backlash

Emma Bowman

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